Life at the Crossroads
March 27, 2017 // Gabi Barragan
Once, in a poem penned as a sardonic reference to living life on our country’s southern border, Chicana author Gloria Anzaldúa wrote
Though I first read those words at the age of 18 in my freshman Chicano Literature class, I - as well as many of my classmates - was already deeply familiar with her message. Here in my hometown of El Paso, Texas, our geographical location is, quite literally, a crossroads. Traveling ten minutes from my doorstep, depending on which direction the southwestern wind blows, I could very well find myself in Sunland Park, NM, or in our sister city Juárez, Mexico.
More poignantly however, we often tend to find ourselves at a cultural crossroads as well. There is a joke within border communities that we experience a sort of “cultural schizophrenia.” But growing up, this sense of ambiguity just felt like life. As a child, I was reprimanded in Spanish, but defended myself in English. As a teenager learning to drive, I knew to watch out for the first Chamizal exit on Interstate-10. If I didn't, I would find myself in another country altogether. As an adult lacking health insurance, I crossed the port of entry into Mexico, searching for medications sold at a lower cost, and without a prescription. My situation is far from unique – in fact, it is quite the norm. International bridges operate day and night to accommodate the more than 3.6 million passenger vehicles, 300,000 commercial vehicles, and 4.2 million pedestrians that cross solely into Juárez on an annual basis for business, for family, or just for their leisure.
The story on the Mexican side of the border is much the same. It is not uncommon in the least to be sharing the roads with Mexican licensed vehicles as their drivers make their way to work, school, to the shops, or to visit family. This pattern of migration has existed in much the same way for generations, from the time that El Paso-Juárez was a city in and of itself by the name of El Paso del Norte, with its newest territories extending northward of the mighty Rio Grande river. In 1848, by way of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the Rio Grande would become the permanent line of demarcation between the United States and Mexico, effectively splitting the Paso del Norte region in two. Today, El Paso continues to exist to the north, Juárez to the south, and the great Rio Grande is now just a trickle of its former glory, diverted for agriculture and the maintenance of international boundaries. But despite our technical estrangement, our bi-national community has carried on quite like it always has, with generations having grown and lived on the border knowing two worlds, two languages, two cultures, but one shared existence. Another joke on the frontera goes “We did not cross the border, the border crossed us.”
It is not to say however, that the line of distinction is altogether lost upon us. When traveling past immigration checkpoints, we utter the words “American” when asked who we are, and are made keenly aware of who we are not. When looking out over our twin cities, it does not take long for our eyes to find the dark line of metal and electricity that cuts through the desert, running into the horizon. Nevertheless, our symbiotic relationship has persevered, albeit with the buffer that is the international boundary. Take for instance an occurrence within our region’s recent history that in many ways exemplifies our complex social and economic relationship. While the rest of United States was consumed by the financial crisis that would inevitably propel us into the Great Recession of the late 2000s, El Paso, a city whose poverty level consistently hovers at 24%, was buoyed by the influx of Juárez natives seeking refuge from the cartel wars that were decimating their city from 2008 to 2012. The brutality and bloodshed gripping the city earned Juarez the title of “Most Violent City in the World” in 2009 and years onward. Standing in stark contrast however, El Paso was routinely named “Safest Large City in the U.S.” during much of that time. While much of the nation was in a state of disrepair, El Paso was experiencing a period of growth, with the real estate and business markets expanding to accommodate new residents and entrepreneurs. In ways both abstract and purposefully obscure, El Paso was spared the violence that erupted in Mexico, but that period of time marked a moment in which El Paso and Juárez were inextricably linked.
It has been almost five years since the marked end of the drug wars, and life is returning to Juárez. Storefronts once vacant and boarded shut are slowly reopening. People can be found traversing the plazas after 7pm, when once they were desolate and deserted. And, most importantly, families are starting to feel as though they can finally return home. In the national mind however, the border remains a strange and dangerous place. Yet, here on the border, the wave of fear currently rippling through us is not one of violent criminals, or of a wild and lawless land, but of our community being purposefully and painfully ripped apart by an administration that seems doggedly intent on doing so. The change in the political climate has been felt for some time now, and a fog of uneasiness has settled over our, at one time, laid-back and happy city. How many community members will we lose to the next ICE raid? How many families will be torn apart? How will this affect our Dreamers? How will our community’s already strained and dependent economy survive an enormous wall and a 20 percent tariff? No one has the answers to these questions yet, and the feeling that we lack any semblance of control in their creation is becoming more palpable each day.
The border community is standing at a crossroads, and the direction that we will go, ultimately, may not be chosen for us. One thing will never change, and that is the way in which El Paso is bound to Mexico, as it is with us: arterially, and in perpetuity. But what may change drastically is the way in which we live our daily lives. Will we watch neighborhoods slowly dissolve as their residents are sent by the truckloads over the border, never to be seen again? Will our Mercado district resemble that of Juárez circa 2010 – vacant and lifeless? Of all these things, we are unsure, but the border is resilient, and our community will remain a crossroads of both culture, and identity.
Gabi Barragan is a border native of El Paso, TX and studied International Relations at the University of Texas at El Paso. She spent two years living and working in Baton Rouge through the Americorps Vista program in 2014-15.